Whirligig With Wing

excerpt I "May the flame of Saint Vitus strike you, bubblehead!" and the slaps shot out in pair like two barrels firing in unison. The one to give them was a very upset Simion Mandruta, and the one to receive them was his rascal of a son, Toader, thin like a rake, fair-haired, sallow, with a whitish, thin-lipped mouth, a mere line on his face, yet with big blue eyes, always startled and inquisitive. It seemed the old man had returned from the pasture in a huff and found that the darned cattle had not been watered. All the while, Toader, comfortably nested behind the shed, had been crafting a toy that looked like a bird, from shingles and yellow paper bought from Trifu, the innkeeper, with money rustled up, God knows how, from various relatives. Naturally, someone unfamiliar with the fire smoldering in the yard and household of Simion Mandruta could have taken the brisk slaps and the merciless curse for the quickness of a hotheaded man. Yet Niculina, wife of Rafaila Moustache, a neighbor who lived up the hill, and Stana, wife of Lame Ursache, their neighbor who lived down the hill, would not have dared laugh, as they spied cunningly from behind the pickets of the tilted fences, if they had not known the story was old and by now common knowledge with all the kids of Viltotesti, and therefore unworthy of a more mature person's attention. Otherwise, they might have rooted for that scrawny Toader as they had done a few months earlier when there had been such a ruckus, and a storm of womanly yelping, that the entire village had flocked to Simion's shoddy door. In the hamlet perched on the side of the Huidiuman a terrible disease was spreading among the children. Not a bodily illness, God forbid, yet it fell short of becoming even more loathsome than a common malady. That accursed disease had spread into all the nooks between Galati and Iasi – as you look at the map taking into account how the wind blows – because of some darned Polish planes that crisscrossed the air day after day, sometimes high up, sometimes lower, as they saw fit for their business. Such contraptions had ruffled clouds in other parts already. Only that they either had flown too high or been too small or maybe, as they had not had a definite course, they had not caused too much distraction in the pointed, wooly heads of the snooty kids of Viltotesti. The Polish monsters seemed to have put a bur under their saddles. First, they were like behemoths, with only one pair of wings, and the propellers attached to their front nose buzzed like three big mills taken together. Then they flew like clockwork. Irrespective of the weather, windy, rainy or stormy, they performed just fine! You could hear them rumble here or there, as it suited their order, then up high, twice as high as the Huidiuman, making a short cut to Dodesti, or to Crasna as if there were rails in the sky, which only they could see. The most breath-taking thing of all was that they did not fly very high so that you could clearly see faces of people sitting at windows. And those heads were no longer bundled up like hell, wearing facemasks, glass eyes, and leather hoods on their heads. They seemed just like any other Romanian at home. One day the boys could even perceive a lady's features up there, and next to her a fat gentleman, in shirtsleeves, reading a newspaper. You could have sworn it was a princely car like those shining so nicely when they whizzed past, without stopping, through the Rosiesti railway station, and the stationmaster saluted them…All this exciting stuff filled their summer days, when they herded the calves to graze at the foot of the Fagadau forest, across the ravine, or in the meadows of the wood owned by squire Diamandi, the proprietor of the estate uphill. It filled their summer and also their hearts with all kinds of shenanigans, one more devilish than the other. For instance, the eldest offspring of Garneata the Town Hall clerk, Angheluta, egged them on that they should each manufacture a solid sling and see if they could hit the airplane; they also were in the bad habit of shattering the glass contraptions on the telephone poles, or competing with each other as to who broke most windows of trains passing by, whenever they happened to linger until late in the evening, on the grazing pastures of Barlad valley. In spite of everything, Nicoara, widow Evdochia's son, proved smarter than the others. He realized a sling that big could not be put together (he had tried his hand at a smaller one), and he decided instead to get some pellet guns, because they were lighter, and in case they penetrated the plane carcass they would not damage the gents in the air. Only that the attempt with the gun bore no fruit. The behemoth flew on undisturbed, as if the shots had not even been fired, which caused a terrible row, and bred a fray verging on a skirmish. Understandable. Some considered the bullets had not reached their target, others that they were too light and the machine was all iron. "My, what fools you are! How could it be iron, guys? If it were made of iron would it be able to fly so high? Iron, my brothers, doesn't float on water, to say nothing of the air in the sky, where only the dandelion's tooth can rise, or manure smoke." Replied only Patrut, the son of Bulgarian Cristache, actually one of ours, but called so because he had a Bulgarian-type vegetable garden somewhere down the valley of Banca: "How about a heron, isn't it heavy? After all, it's a humongous beast!" "Well, bro, that one floats 'cos it flaps its wings, not like this thing that flaps none at all." Patrut, crushed by the weight of the pronouncement, arched his thick eyebrows, skinned his empty eyes, yet came with no reply. Luckily, Angheluta smelled a rat, and somehow had a hunch about how things stood. "It doesn't flap its wings 'cause the propeller on its beak keeps it in the air." At this, Nicoara, the most enlightened of all, upset the cap on his head, and sneered at him like the fool he was: "My, if you're so clever, bro, why don't you shove a propeller up the seat of your pants, and take off after it. I saw such propeller up on the squire's tower, and yet his house ain't flying up in the air!" And Nicoara laughed for a while, thinking he'd won the argument. Only that Patrut was very determined and wouldn't concede anything. Thus he retorted valiantly: "So what! You think this plane has just one propeller? It's got three, cousin! And the squire's house is way too big… it's no small potatoes. It should have a propeller or two on each corner." Unhappily, for all their talk and quarrels, they could not settle the matter. They lacked something that could have clarified things. And that was the airplane itself. They would have liked to see it from up close, to touch it with their hands, to carve at it with their Swiss knives and study its entrails like a butchered chicken's. Then, it went without saying, the thing would have proved easier, and the lads of Viltotesti could have judged things better. That is why it came as a relief for all, on that day of Saint Paraschiva – it fell on a Monday, seemingly – when uncle Cristea Boldau, former coach driver at the Court and a well-to-do man, who used to read the newspaper whenever he came to the fair at Barlad, or Crasna, frowned, and with one brow arched, he turned to the airplane in the sky, mumbling: "You jangle and rumble… but let me not see you break your beak in my shed!" This prompted him to recount a frightening story about a similar contraption that had tumbled to the ground and set fire to a sturdy house, at the same time turning to ashes the innocent old woman inside. Apparently, he had read about it in a paper and had been greatly puzzled; even more, he had darned the rambling devil that did not leave the sky untainted to God. "What did Old Nick say to his vile self? So, Lord, you have driven me out of your heavenly territory where you reign supreme on a golden throne… and you cast me headlong that I could have cracked my skull had my nape not been so strong, and had I not traveled to the bowels of the earth… now I'm going to get you for having let me down! For you have forgotten to take away my astuteness and that is very much like yours…" Here uncle Cristea fiercely sucked his drooping moustache from out of the glass, and settled things between the devil and God with the righteous fairness of an unbiased judge: "And that is the truth, I say, he is clever, the nasty one… for the Holy Father took pity on him and left him his cleverness, like bread to man. Which is to say every man deserves to have his spade and seed for the field. Another example that the Lord, not even when crossed, takes the livelihood from one but instead chases him away, telling him: You didn't want to be my faithful servant, so, to give you what you deserve, take these tools to nurture yourself and be gone from my sight!'" Then uncle Cristea downed what was left and turned the glass like a sword to the ground, to milk the last drop from it, "the devil's eye"! Afterwards he wiped his prickly moustache, gray at the ends, and yellowish with tobacco under the eaves of the nose, stood up, shaking a little on his frail feet until he managed to adjust his body to a position that suited him, as not to damage his weak constitution, and uttered with the raucous echo of a black pot: "That's right! The devil set to work and devised a whirligig like I have in my yard. But he attached a wing, and he himself hid in the bellows… and whir-whir… Old Deuce lifts the thing up… roaring like the squire's horseless coach, which went bang into Vasile's fence. This as payment for having suspected me and kicked me out of my job, where, with diligence and honesty, I groomed fierce horses, sixteen pairs of them, and instead he bought a whirring contraption that quacks, and has scared stiff all the kids in the villages." "But then, that is truly a machine… and that's that! As long as that beast of a devil doesn't drone and whir like a machine he stands no chance of baffling the Holy Lord." "But isn't the airplane a machine, too, uncle Cristea?" someone asked puzzled. "A machine? Well, then where's the exhaust, dummy?" the old man turned to him, smiling yet obviously mad at the opposition. "Meaning that a machine cannot be without exhaust! Isn't that correct? Have you seen – for you're clever as a cartful of monkeys – a machine not to give out steam? Even the Jerry's threshing machine, which he knows by heart, and if he could manage to have it work without any smog he'd be more than content for he wouldn't have to worry about fire in the field, as it happened the other day at Stoisasti… well?" "How about the train, doesn't it leave a trail of smoke? Or the squire's coach, doesn't it let out stinking gas, well, sort of, for it's the gas from the squire..." "No, no, dummy! That's not a machine! That's fire and destruction because the devil sits at the top of the whirligig, the devil who wants to put out God, as if he beat his chest with his fists and said in his forked devilish tongue: You have driven me down but see now I'm climbing up without your leave, and I could even topple you from your heavenly throne..." 1926

by Victor Ion Popa (1895-1946)